Visiting An Unexcavated Khmer Rouge Mass Grave in Cambodia.
Above Photo: Standing at the rim of the Khmer Rouge Killing Pit in Kosa Peak Village, Eastern Cambodia.
During a BACK-related research trip to Eastern Cambodia, to see former Khmer Rouge jungle hideouts, I visited Kosa (or Kok) Peak village, which was controlled by the Khmer Rouge well before they took Phnom Penh in 1975.
Paradoxically, the simple lifestyles of ethnic tribal villagers in places such as Kosa Peak, who survived by growing rice and living on the land, may have influenced some of the Khmer Rouge’s more insanely genocidal policies, especially its attempt to recreate the greatness of the civilization that built the temples of Angkor Wat a thousand years earlier, by growing rice on an agrarian-industrial scale.
Ethnic minorities’ early collaboration with the Khmer Rouge didn’t save them from the worst excesses of the genocide unleashed across Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, although there has been very little written about this because the survivors were usually illiterate farmers, villagers and ethnic tribes-people scraping a living far away from journalists and the media after the Khmer Rouge had been toppled by the Vietnamese Army in 1979.
On this trip I picked up a guide in Kosa Peak village whose grandfather, also from the village, had been taken off and murdered by the Khmer Rouge during their reign of terror.
As we crossed the rice field, having visited the remains of a Khmer Rouge dam (see link at the end of this article) we passed simple spirit houses made out of bamboo and wicker, which each family had erected to make offerings to the spirits of earth and water, and to pray for a good rice harvest.
We then stopped at two holes. The first, approximately two metres by one metre, was caused when a large bomb was dropped by a US plane during the Vietnam War. This area was part of the US’s secret bombing of eastern Cambodia in a fruitless attempt to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese Army’s supply lines which wound through the Cambodian jungle and into South Vietnam.
The bomb failed to explode and had remained stuck in the ground throughout the Khmer Rouge period, only being removed recently.
Close by was a larger hole that looked like a dried pond with thick, cracked mud at the bottom. Our guide told me this was where the villagers had been taken to be murdered during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Back then it was surrounded by jungle, so local people could be killed away from prying eyes.
The Khmer Rouge had ordered villagers to dig the pit, on the pretext that it was to be used for fertilizer. One villager discovered the truth and escaped, coming back one night to warn the village and, from that time, the villagers were constantly in fear of being called out to ‘collect fertilizer from the jungle’.
The pit has never been excavated. Our guide had no idea how many people had been murdered and dumped into it, but the village had lost hundreds of people through murder, malnutrition, disease and overwork during the Khmer Rouge period, and many of the murdered had been thrown into the pit. Their remains were now lying in peace, covered by metres of thick brown mud.
Deeply superstitious, many villagers believe the pit to be haunted, and some said they had seen ghosts of people who’d been murdered, crying and begging for help. They now avoid it at night.
I asked what the guide’s grandfather had done to be killed, and whether he also lay in the pit.
The guide shook his head. His grandfather had uttered a throwaway remark about the worthlessness of Angkar, the Khmer Rouge’s ‘machine’, which was overheard by an informant in the village. He was taken to a nearby mountain on the pretext of collecting wood, and was never heard from again.
His family hadn’t grieved or mourned. In the Khmer Rouge time, people didn’t talk about the disappeared; it was too dangerous, and if you cried over the death of a loved one, you too would be killed, as the Khmer Rouge believed loyalty to Angkar transcended family ties and friendship.
Lying beneath this muddy pit were just some of the hapless victims of their utter insanity.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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